It has recently come to my attention that the Islamic organisation Isalm4UK are planning a march on the small town of Wootton Bassett, just six miles south west of Swindon. The town has recently received a great deal of publicity, as well as a special place in the British public consciousness. It is the place where the bodies of those killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan are paraded through before receiving the full honours of a military funeral. Islam4UK however, plan to stage a march highlighting the other aspect of the conflict, those Afghans and Iraqis that are dying in large numbers. There are some important points to be made about this protest, and what it means and where it is misguided.
Firstly, Islam4UK have misunderstood the nature of military funerals. While it is true that many people do come to them to honour what they consider to be the sacrifice and the heroism of those who participate in the work of the armed forces, that in itself is not a declaration of support for the war. As was discovered by the Americans in the 1960’s, it is perfectly possible to support the work of the armed forces (“backing up the boys” as it was put at the time) whilst disapproving of the war’s initiation by the political ruling class of the time. Many people come to military funerals out of respect for the military, not necessarily the war they were fighting. And also, many simply come to grieve the loss of a family member or a friend. “Islam4UK” have made the mistake of linking support and solidarity at military funerals with support for the war. The two are not synonymous and treating them like they are by marching on somewhere which they believe is central to the support of the war, when it is in fact centre of it’s grief, will only unnecessarily upset and anger people and will not achieve any real protesting goal.
That said, secondly, Islam4UK have complete and utter freedom to protest in whatever manner they see fit. If their protest will involve disruption to the town’s infrastructure (blocking roads with marchers etc.) then obviously they will need to discuss that with the town’s local police or other municipal authorities and appropriate arrangements will need to be made. But none of these should undermine Islam4UK and it’s members from exercising their freedom of speech. Many have said that the kind of protest they are exercising is unacceptable in it’s insensitivity. However to limit their freedom of speech in this manner is also to act inappropriately, especially considering what it was that many of these soldiers were fighting to bring to Iraq and Afghanistan. Freedoms like the freedom to protest peacefully. It is to avoid hypocrisy and be true to our principles that this protest should be allowed to take place without unnecessary government intervention.
However, thirdly, it is unclear exactly what it is that Islam4UK want to achieve with this protest, and if it is what they claim to be wanting to achieve in their Internet posting on the matter, it is very misguided. Calling the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq “genocide” is inaccurate. Genocide involves the systematic elimination of a group of people on the basis of something that separates them from the rest of a group. Examples have been seen in the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan may indeed have resulted in a large number of deaths, but no serious analytical mind could accuse the Americans, British or any partner of the coalition of attempting in any systematic fashion to rid the world of the Afghan or Iraqi peoples. Even if, for the sake of argument, these two conflicts were somehow genocidal, it is hard to see how a protest in Wootton Bassett would really do very much. The place where the war dead are honoured is not the same as the place where the decisions are made. In the long run this will only anger people and embitter them towards the UK’s Muslim population. Any suggestion that this will somehow change UK policy in the two war zones is misguided. Also, the post claims that it is intended to draw attention to the dead Iraqis and Afghans in the same way that the military funerals draws attention to the dead soldiers. It is only natural however, that a country cares for it’s dead servicemen and women. To expect the British state to provide funerals for Iraqi and Afghan civilians seems somewhat bizarre. The idea that this is somehow appropriate redress seems to make very little sense. Again, if it is to draw attention to the crimes of the war, Wootton Bassett is the wrong place to go. London or Sandhurst would be more appropriate for such a thing.
Some have suggested that it seems hypocritical that many of the British public would defend the British National Party’s apperence on question time and yet criticise this action by Islam4UK. However there is an important distinction. Question time is a political discussion forum. A platform for those wanting to engage with the public in the political arena to espouse their views. It is appropriate that the BNP engage in that sort of enviroment, but it would not be apropriate for them to organise a march opposite a much used Islamic burial site. While both forms are acceptable under free speech, as is the fact that in the US the biggest neo-Nazi rallies are held in the town with the largest population of Holocaust survivors, it’s not really that sensative or wise.
In short, while this protest is perfectly democratically acceptable, in so far as it is, in its basic form, an anti-war march, there is no real way for it to make sense to be at Wootton Bassett. Islam4UK’s actions, should they follow them through, will result in little more than the further embittering of many Britons feelings towards Muslims in general, and will no doubt further fuel the prominence of such organisations as the British National Party and the English Defence League. Just because the members of Islam4UK have a right to protest, it definitely does not make it wise to do so.